Religion Wiki
Part of a series on the
Eastern Christianity
00058 christ pantocrator mosaic hagia sophia 656x800.jpg

Byzantine Empire Crusades Ecumenical council Christianization of Bulgaria Christianization of Kievan Rus' East-West Schism

by regions

Asian - Copts Eastern Orthodox - Georgian - Ukrainian


Assyrian Church of the East Eastern Orthodox Church Eastern Catholic Churches Oriental Orthodoxy Syriac Christianity

Liturgy and Worship

Sign of the cross Divine Liturgy Iconography Asceticism Omophorion


Hesychasm - Icon Apophaticism - Filioque clause Miaphysitism - Monophysitism Nestorianism - Theosis - Theoria Phronema - Philokalia Praxis - Theotokos Hypostasis - Ousia Essence - Energies distinction Metousiosis

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, also known as Pseudo-Denys, is the anonymous theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century whose Corpus Areopagiticum (before 532) was pseudonymously ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. The author was historically believed to be the Areopagite[1] because he claimed acquaintance with biblical characters. His surviving works include Divine Names, Mystical Theology.,[2] Celestial Hierarchy, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and various epistles.[3] Some other works are no longer extant, such as Theological Outlines.


His works are mystical and show strong Neoplatonic influence. For example, he uses Plotinus' well known analogy of a sculptor cutting away that which does not enhance the desired image. He shows familiarity with Proclus, which indicates he wrote no earlier than the 5th century, as well as influence from Saint Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers, Origen of Alexandria, and others. Although many[who?] disagree with such simple oppositions and crude characterizations,[Neutrality is disputed] the most general view is that there is a distinct difference between Neoplatonism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In Neoplatonism, it is often said, all life returns to the source to be stripped of individual identity, a process called henosis (see Iamblichus). However, in Orthodox Christianity, theosis restores the Likeness of God in man by grace (by being united to God the Holy Trinity through participation in His divine energies).[4] The liturgical references in his writings also date his works after the 4th century.

He appears to have belonged to the group which attempted to form a compromise position between monophysitism and the orthodox teaching. His writings were first cited in 519 in a work by Severus of Antioch, Adversus apologiam Juliani, who cited the Fourth Letter.[5] Dionysius was initially used by monophysites to back up parts of their arguments, but his writings were eventually adopted by other church theologians as well, primarily due to the work of John of Scythopolis and Maximus the Confessor in producing an orthodox interpretation.[6] The Dionysian writings and their mystical teaching were universally accepted throughout the East, amongst both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. St. Gregory Palamas, for example, in referring to these writings, calls the author, "an unerring beholder of divine things." And in the West, the manuscripts grew to be very popular amongst theologians in the Middle Ages -- Thomas Aquinas cites Pseudo-Dionysius over 1700 times.[7] Dionysius' portrayal of the "via negativa" was particularly influential among contemplatives and mystical theologians.[8] Debates over the authenticity of the authorship of Dionysian corpus, however, began in the Renaissance.

Medieval misunderstandings

During the medieval period Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Denis of France, though two distinct figures historically, were conflated;[9] it was thought that after his conversion by Paul, the Areopagite had traveled to France, preached, and been martyred there. This confusion of historical detail was exacerbated by the common acceptance of Pseudo-Dionysius's writings as the authentic work of the Biblical figure. The great Abbey of Saint-Denis just north of Paris claimed to have the relics of Dionysius. Around 1121, Pierre Abélard, a Benedictine monk at Saint Denis Basilica, turned his attention to the story of their patron saint, and disentangled the three different Dionysiuses. The monks were offended at the apparent demotion of Saint Denis, and Abélard did not remain long at Saint Denis. The confusion over the text might stem from the text being an oral tradition (declamatio) that was only at a later date finally put to record. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "It must also be recognized that 'forgery' is a modern notion. Like Plotinus and the Cappadocian Fathers before him, Dionysius does not claim to be an innovator, but rather a communicator of a tradition." [10]

The monastery of St. Denis, which had inadvertently conflated the two Dionysiuses, had a good Greek edition of Pseudo-Dionysius's works given to them by Charles the Bald, which was translated into Latin by John Scotus Eriugena in the late 9th century. This translation widely popularized both Pseudo-Dionysius' teaching and his explanation of the angels.


The authorship of the Dionysian Corpus was initially disputed; Severus and his party concluded their apostolic dating, largely because they seemed to agree with their Christology. However, this dating was disputed by Hypatius of Ephesus, who met the monophysite party during the 532 meeting with Emperor Justin; Hypatius denied their authenticity on the grounds that none of the Fathers or Councils ever cited or referred to them. Hypatius condemned them along with the Apollinarian texts, distributed during the Nestorian controversy under the names of Pope Julius and Athanasius, which the monophysites entered as evidence supporting their position.[11]

The first defense of their authenticity is undertaken by John of Scythopolis, whose commentary, the Scholia (ca. 540), on the Dionysian Corpus constitutes the first defense of its apostolic dating, wherein he specifically argues that the work is neither Apollinarian nor a forgery, probably in response both to monophysites and Hypatius--although even he, given his unattributed citations of Plotinus in interpreting Dionysius, might have known better.[12] Dionysius' authenticity is criticized later in the century, and defended by Theodore of Raithu; and by the 7th century, it is taken as demonstrated, affirmed by both Maximus the Confessor and the 649 Lateran Council. From that point forward, the authorship is largely not in question until the Renaissance.

The Florentine humanist Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), in his commentaries on the New Testament, did much to establish that the author of the Corpus Areopagiticum could not have been St. Paul's convert, though he was unable to identify the actual historical author. The fictitious literary persona had long been accepted on face value by all its readers, with a couple of exceptions such as Nicholas of Cusa noted by modern historians, but whose reservations went unheard.

William Grocyn pursued Valla's lines of text criticism, and Valla's critical viewpoint of the authorship of the highly influential Corpus was accepted and publicized by Erasmus from 1504 onward, for which he was criticized by Catholic theologians. In the Leipzig disputation with Martin Luther, 1519, Johann Eck used the Corpus, specifically the Angelic Hierarchy, as argument for the apostolic origin of papal supremacy, pressing the Platonist analogy, "as above, so below".

During the 19th century modernist Catholics too came generally to accept that this self-identified disciple of St. Paul must have lived after the time of Proclus, whose works he paraphrased in transforming Neoplatonism into Christian terms—which is the philosophical approach that had interested the Christian Neoplatonist Valla in the first place.

Dionysius identity is still heavily under dispute. The compilers of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[10] find pseudo-Dionysius to be most probably "a pupil of Proclus, perhaps of Syrian origin, who knew enough of Platonism and the Christian tradition to transform them both. Since Proclus died in 485, and since the first clear citation of Dionysius' works is by Severus of Antioch between 518 and 528, then we can place Dionysius' authorship between 485 and 518-28." Ronald Hathaway provides a table listing most of the major identifications of Dionysius: e.g., Ammonius Saccas, Dionysius the Great, Peter the Fuller, Dionysius the Scholastic, Severus of Antioch, Sergius of Reshaina, unnamed Christian followers of everyone from Origen of Alexandria to Basil of Caesarea, Eutyches to Proclus.[13] Georgian academician Shalva Nutsubidze and Belgian professor Ernest Honigmann were authors of a theory identifying pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite with Peter the Iberian.[14] A more recent identification is with Damascius, the last scholarch of the School of Athens.[15]

See also


  1. The Areopagus of Athens was an open-air law court, a site for public declamations.
  2. Dionysius the Areopagite on the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology, 2004, IBIS PRESS, ISBN 0-89254-095-8
  3. Pseudo Dionysius: The Complete Works, 1987, Paulist Press, ISBN 0-8091-2838-1
  4. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-31-1) James Clarke & Co Ltd, 1991. (ISBN 0-227-67919-9)
  5. Hathaway, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius, p.4
  6. Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius, p. 14
  7. Doherty, K.F. “St. Thomas and the Pseudo-Dionysian Symbol of Light”. In: The New. Scholasticism, 34(1960), pp.170-189.
  8. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, for instance, drew explicitly on "St. Denys" and composed an expanded Middle English translation of Dionysius' Mystical Theology.
  9. Dionysius = Denys = Denis = Dennis.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "It must also be recognized that “forgery” is a modern notion. Like Plotinus and the Cappadocians before him, Dionysius does not claim to be an innovator, but rather a communicator of a tradition. Adopting the persona of an ancient figure was a long established rhetorical device (known as declamatio), and others in Dionysius' circle also adopted pseudonymous names from the New Testament. Dionysius' works, therefore, are much less a forgery in the modern sense than an acknowledgement of reception and transmission, namely, a kind of coded recognition that the resonances of any sacred undertaking are intertextual, bringing the diachronic structures of time and space together in a synchronic way, and that this theological teaching, at least, is dialectically received from another. Dionysius represents his own teaching as coming from a certain Hierotheus and as being addressed to a certain Timotheus. He seems to conceive of himself, therefore, as an in–between figure, very like a Dionysius the Areopagite, in fact. " Pseudo-Dionysius in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  11. Hathaway, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius, p.13
  12. Rorem, "John of Scythopolis on Apollinarian Christology," p.482. John of Scythopolis was also proficient identifier of Apollinarian forgeries, giving his defense that much more credibility.
  13. Hathaway, Hierarchy and the Definition of Order in the Letters of Pseudo-Dionysius, p.31
  14. Sh. Nutsubidze. "Mystery of Pseudo-Dionys Areopagit (a monograph), Tbilisi, 1942; E. Honigmann, Pierre l'Iberian et les ecrits du Pseudo-Denys l'Areopagita. Bruxelles, 1952.
  15. Carlo Maria Mazzucchi, Damascio, Autore del Corpus Dionysiacum, e il dialogo Περι Πολιτικης Επιστημης, Aevum: Rassegna di scienze storiche linguistiche e filologiche, ISSN 0001-9593, Anno 80, Nº 2, 2006, pp 299-334.

Secondary sources

  • Griffith, R., "Neo-Platonism and Christianity: Pseudo-Dionysius and Damascius", in: Studia patristica XXIX. Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995, ed. by E. A. Livingstone, Leuven: Peeters, 1997, 238-243.
  • Frend, W. H. C.. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972
  • Hathaway, Ronald F.. Hierarchy and the definition of order in the letters of Pseudo-Dionysius. A study in the form and meaning of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings. The Hague, Nijhoff, 1969
  • Perl, Eric D., Theophany. The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0-7914-7111-1.
  • Rorem, Paul. Pseudo-Dionysius : a commentary on the texts and an introduction to their influence. New York : Oxford University Press, 1993
  • Rorem, Paul and John C. Lamoreaux "John of Scythopolis on Apollinarian Christology and the Pseudo-Areopagite's True Identity." Church History, Vol. 62, No. 4, (Dec., 1993), pp. 469–482